Reading wrap-up: March 2019

A month in which my book-buying ban went all to blazes.

Highlight

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Oh, this book! Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would have been  my winner. Everyone I know who has loved it has said, “I’ll never look at trees the same way again!” I think I will never quite look at people the same way again. I don’t recall my ever being someone for whom humans are the only (or even, at times, the primary) species of interest. This book made me weep with rage, frustration and inconsolable sadness. But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I enjoyed following the seemingly separate narratives as they came together. I felt for the characters (human and arboreal) through what came next. I appreciated having plenty to think about. It was so worth the four months I had to wait for it from the library.

Disappointment

(Not the book as a whole, which I actually enjoyed, but a particular aspect of it.) Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a solitary girl with a knowledge of herbs. She is also a witness to the Glencoe massacre. Put the two together and she’s set to be burnt for a witch. She is, quite simply, in love with life, however difficult and dangerous, and likewise with the natural world. I loved the vivid descriptions of her moment-to-moment experience of the Highlands. The actual love story felt superfluous, as though the author lacked confidence in Corrag as a sufficiently interesting character without having her sighing over a Jamie Fraser-alike. A disappointment, then, in a book that otherwise has much to recommend it.

Reading wrap-up: January 2019

January was a month in which, in retrospect, I could discern neither rhyme nor reason as to the criteria a book or author must meet in order to merit inclusion on various prize lists.

Highlights:

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Bright young Dellarobia Turnbow heads off up the mountain to escape from her disappointing marriage by the most banal of means and instead is stopped in her tracks by what she initially thinks is a miracle (the forest green and yet burning) but which turns out to be a disastrously misplaced migration of monarch butterflies. I loved the intelligence of this book, paired with Kingsolver’s respect and compassion for her (not terribly sympathetic, albeit understandable) characters. I enjoyed how a global topic (climate change) was grounded in the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman as out of place in her life as the migrating butterflies. Most of all, I appreciated Kingsolver’s craft. I hadn’t read her before and, while she is didactic at times, it didn’t take long for me to feel that I could trust her as a writer.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith. Winner of various prizes. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. Comprising the stories of teenager George, grieving for her mother, and 15th Century Italian painter Francescho, two different versions of this book were released: one beginning with George and the other with Francescho. While I was initially wary of the authorial firework display (and didn’t particularly enjoy Autumn either) it remains playful and doesn’t descend into heartless cleverness. I became intrigued by thoughts of how my perceptions of the story might be different had I picked up the other version (mine had George first). There was plenty to think about altogether: art, time, grief, gender. Reading recalled vividly to mind the experience of being engrossed in Peter Ackroyd novels during my A-Levels: there is a similar theme of reality and time being less solid and linear than we tend to perceive. In a sense, I briefly got to “be both”, too!

Disappointments:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Lonely Linda becomes attached to a young family across the lake but suspects that something is not right: is her need to belong stronger than her need to speak up and act on her suspicions? It had a promising theme around beliefs/thoughts and responsibility towards others (and circumstances in which the two become incompatible) and I thought Fridlund captured the sense of place, Linda’s loneliness and the horrible foreboding very well. However, when Something Happened it was all of a sentence and the rest of the book unravelled thereafter. I felt she made inferences at times that her story-craft hadn’t earned and, as a whole, the book read like two or even three novel plots stitched into one. And what the hell was that ending?! Structurally unsound: proceed with caution.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British Writer. Girls discover that they have the power to cause electric shocks through touch. They “wake” this power in grown women and, lo and behold, men are suddenly a lot less dominant. I was curious as to where this would go and amused by the sly humour but ended up feeling bludgeoned by the escalating awfulness. It paints a dismal view of human nature: that we inevitably default to shrieking like chimps and tearing each other’s throats out. We have accepted a narrow and dysfunctional notion of what constitutes power (i.e. power over another) and the book reflects that. In short order the women are behaving in all the ways that misogynistic men/ societies currently do and, my word, does it escalate!

It’s easy to imagine there would be a backlash if such a thing were to occur and I’m not suggesting that female dominance would be all cake and cuddles but what’s presented here is a gender-reversed continuation of patriarchal norms. I’m at a loss to understand all the whooping and hollering this has occasioned. And am I the only one cringing at the obviousness of Margaret Atwood’s cover endorsement? “Electrifying! Shocking!” Really?! (How on Earth am I supposed to trust her judgement after that?) I don’t feel shocked: I feel numbed.

Reading Wrap-up: October 2018

A month in which I stuck to my book-buying ban and made good use of the Poetry Library’s online collection.

Highlights

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve chosen this as my pick of the month (though Burial Rites is a close second) as I think it is the one that will stay with me the longest.

“To succeed, to enjoy lasting good fortune, one must have a different temperament from mine. I shall never do what I could have done and ought to have wanted and pursued.”

Vincent, friend, you did all right! These are fascinating letters which, naturally, give great insight into his art and what it meant to him but which also show him and his work interacting within a wider context than that of the isolated madman of his “mythology”. He comes across as a driven and difficult individual, yes, but also a deeply thoughtful and vitally involved one. The collected letters are simultaneously heart-breaking and affirming.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of her lover/employer. I was astonished to learn that this was a debut novel, and will definitely look out for more of hers. I thought there were striking parallels (e.g. the nature of the crime committed, the circumstances and ambiguity of the woman found guilty) between this book and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but, while Atwood is undeniably clever, I feel that Kent’s book has more heart: the last chapter, especially, made for difficult reading.

Disappointments

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. I enjoyed Chaucer very much when I first encountered him, many years ago: here’s the cast of lively characters that I remember, with a host of boisterous tales to tell. I still enjoy Chaucer (and one day will re-read the original). Twenty and more years ago I loved everything I read by Peter Ackroyd so was looking forward to a treat: what a disappointment! Why? In a word, misogyny. Whether of the casual or deliberate kind, there’s no let up. The characters, Chaucer and Ackroyd all fall back on “no offence intended: just repeating what I heard” and while this may be accepted as par for the course in Middle English verse, in contemporary English prose the effect is harder to stomach.

The male characters reveal themselves by their words and behaviour as blusterers and blatherskites (Chaucer has a laugh at everyone’s expense, his own included) but the constant harping on the failings of women in a modern voice is at first irritating and then cumulatively demoralising. That’s not my idea of entertainment.

Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney. Written against a backdrop of “austerity” and other Tory doublespeak, I get the rage, I really do. But, for me, this collection is an example of what happens to poetry when it is disembodied, so to speak, when the idea becomes paramount. And it reads as though written not from a need to communicate but to enjoy the big, shocking sound of its voice bouncing off the walls.  The result is phrasing such assertions as: There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Well that’s certainly a striking and nasty image but what on Earth does it MEAN? Anything? Imagine putting hours of machine gun fire into Google Translate: there you have it.